He’s gone, I can’t believe it. He always thought he was dying, but I never thought he was serious. Michael was a story teller; one would never know if his tales were real, embellished or entirely fabricated. So why would I have believed him this time? As a little girl I would listen intently to his outlandish ideas.
“Is that really true Michael?
He’d look me straight in the eye, “Sure it is Sis.”
He was five years my senior, a dark skinned, good looking guy. I thought he was a couple bubbles off plumb, but loved him just the same. As a kid, he’d hold his breath until he turned blue to make a point and write beatnik songs that made absolutely no sense. He played the flute and drums since he was a ten. It’s a wonder the entire family didn’t go deaf from the practicing. His claim to fame was taking lessons with Cubby from the Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950’s.
When he was a teenager I’d peer into his darkened room through a crack in his bedroom door and spy on him. He slowly and methodically worked his snare drum with the spotlight set on his face and drumsticks as he recited his poetries.
“Life is a drag man”…sha shoo…sha shoo
“Life is a drag.”
“Known not to conformity”, sha shoo, sha shoo,
“Life is a drag man.”
“Man, life is a drag.”
Michael was the host of the family shows we staged for the grown-ups. I was the singer and dancer and would insist the family turn around and not look when I was on stage; I was the shy one. When the show was over and Michael told every last joke; the aunts and uncles would throw coins to us. He was a brilliant showman and storyteller.
He talked my cousin Francine and me into sneaking out of the house at dawn one Sunday morning. I remember it being a Sunday, as his Saturday was spent studying the Torah for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. We grabbed our homemade go-cart and walked the half block to Imperial highway. He set the rickety wooden cart at the top of the treacherous hill and made sure the wheels were tightly mounted to the axle and the steering rope was working properly. I waited patiently for all the testing to be done.
Twisting my hair around my finger I asked my big brother, “Are you scared Michael?”
“Nay Sis, there’s nothin’ to be ‘fraid of.”
Francine was adamant, “I’m not going!”
I sang, “Francine’s a sissy, Francine’s a sissy.”
In our family it was always two against one. Most times it was Michael and me against Francine. She and my Aunt lived with us for most of our childhood. She got straight A’s, so we figured it was okay to hate her.
Michael slung his leg over the plank of wood, sat down and placed his red Converse Tenny’s firmly on the ground to make sure the cart wouldn’t head down the hill without us.
He grabbed the rope and commanded in his sternest voice, “Francine get in or I’ll sock you. Sit down behind me and hold on tight.”
She stuck out her tongue at me and got in.
Michael yelled, “Now it’s your turn, sis grab on to Francine.”
I jumped in the back and leaned into her barely getting my legs wrapped around her when Michael yelled, “Hi Ho Silver Away!”
We held on for dear life, screaming all the way down the hill. Our shouts reverberated from the vibration of the rickety cart making its way over the sidewalk cracks. We bumped and rattled until we hit a rut, flew off the curb and into the street.
Michael berated us, “Mom and Dad would have never even known we were gone; if you two hadn’t leaned the wrong way. Your bloody chin and knees are going to give us all away.”
Francine started crying, “Am I bleeding, am I bleeding?”
They looked over at me and knew they were really in trouble, as I was the one bleeding, but too tough to cry.
Francine peered at Michael, “Ooo, you are going to get it, you’re the oldest and Anita is bleeding.”
We didn’t get into too much trouble; it just made my dad want to get into the act.
“You guys want a real challenge? Next Sunday, I double dog dare you rascals to a skate race with me around the block. I’ll even give you a head start.”
Michael and I giggled, “Yay Daddy!”
We had to shame Francine into joining. Come Sunday Dad said, “Here’s the rules; I’ll skate the four corners. Michael you start at the second corner. Francine you begin mid-block and Neen, you can go to the half-way mark. I will still beat all of you!
Francine wined, “How come she gets to only skate two corners and I have to skate two and a half?”
Michael just shook his head, “She’s the baby stupid!”
Skate keys in hand we strapped the roller skates to our Ked’s and took our place at our respective starting line. Michael sounded the horn and we were off to the races. Fast Eddie, as I called my dad, didn’t cut us any slack; he had no problem skating the entire block coming in first.
He stood at the finish line hollering, “Come on Neen, you can do it!”
I skated as fast as i could with my dad cheering me on. Michael nearly beat me, but I came in second. Francine chose not to skate on the wet sidewalk, so she walked on the grass and one of her skates came off her shoe. She limped all the way to the finish line crying with her skate dangling from her ankle. It didn’t matter who won, we all celebrated with a root beer float.
In my teenage years my dad, aunt and brother all smoked so I decided to give it a try. Michael taunted me with the prospect of giving me free cigarettes; only after I’d stood on my head or guessed who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then and only then he’d give me a cigarette. On one particular occurrence, he put the un-lit cigarette in my mouth.
He was up to something, “Want me to light it for you?”
I whispered, “Sure!”
As soon as I inhaled, Michael yelled, “Ma, Needa’s smoking!”
When I turned fifteen my mom and dad got a divorce and everyone went their separate ways. Our home of six suddenly became an apartment for two – mom and me. There was no more beating of the drums, go-carts, or skating races and Michael and I drifted apart. We saw one another on holidays at our mother’s house. When I was 25 mother died; after that we rarely saw one another. However we never missed calling each other on our birthdays. My day wasn’t complete until Michael played Happy Birthday to me on his flute. We saw each other only a handful of times over the next two decades. When we were together he would elaborate on his many illnesses.
“This is the one that’s going to kill me.” he’d say.
I told my children that their Uncle Mike was dying again.
“Sure Mom, hasn’t Uncle Mike been dying for years?”
“Well yes but it could be true this time.”
When we were in our fifties Michael and I became friends; in our sixties we became best friends. Our times together always centered on a meal; he had become a real Foodie. One thing that never changed was his crazy stories and eclectic concepts.
Taking a bite of his beef dip sandwich at lunch one afternoon, he proclaimed, “I love Rubenesque women; not five foot ten and 400 pounds, mind you. I like them five feet, three and 200 pounds.”
My mouth was open, getting ready to take a bite of food. I put down my sandwich and said, “Really, really.”
He said, “Yep.”
Before I could take another bite he questioned, “Do you like Risotto?”
Not being sure of what my answer should be, I said, “Why?”
“Well, if you like Risotto, I will have to disown you.”
Perplexed I chuckled, “Do you want to tell me the reason?”
“Its rice for God’s sakes, they charge too much and I am taking a stand.”
He never ceased to make me laugh. One afternoon after a three hour lunch, we decided that we’d try and find the hospital where we were born.
He announced, “I was born at Lincoln Memorial.”
“I know so was I”
He looked perplexed, “Really?”
Puzzled, I asked, “Why didn’t we know that about each other?”
“Well, we really don’t know that much about each other, but something tells me, we will before the day is over.”
After a few wrong turns we found the hospital where we were born. We took pictures and shared funny stories.
“Hey, let’s find Grandma’s house, it should be near here.”
Bobby, as we called her, was a short, stout little lady. She came to America from Poland in the early 1900’s.
“Michael, Bobby took 4th Grade English at the same time I did!”
He added, “She used to cheat at cards too, or so Daddy said.”
“Guess what, I remember her address even though at times I can’t even remember why I went into a room.”
Michael looked at me like a proud brother, “You’re a genius.”
We turned onto the small street in East LA. There were chain link fences around the front yards and bars on the windows that were not there when we were kids. The old cypress trees were enormous and the street was much narrower than we remembered.
Michael rolled down his window and summoned a neighbor that was working on his lawn, “Hi, do you live here?’
“How long have you lived in this neighborhood?”
I queried, “Michael, who do you think you are Huel Howser?”
He smiled and shot me a glance and then resumed his conversation with the older Hispanic gentlemen.
“Our Grandmother lived on this street and our parents met one another here. We played on these streets over 60 years ago.”
He walked over to the car, shook Michael’s hand and told him how much he loved his home and his neighborhood and enjoyed the history lesson. I looked at Michael and tears welled up in my eyes.
He turned out to be such a sweet man. One who had respect for people; regardless of their background or their color.
He surprised me, yet there was no reason to be surprised by his kindness, he was his mother’s son and she was the queen of kind. We knew his lungs were failing and his cancer treatments were not working. The doctors didn’t want to take a chance on surgery because of his weak lungs. This made us treasure these moments all the more.
“The best part about dying, Sis, is living!”
“I know Michael, I know…and eating!”
We waved good-bye to the gent on the corner and headed up the street to 2022 City View. A young man was walking up to the house that our grandmother had lived in.
Michael rolled down the passenger side window startling the stranger. “Sir, Sir, do you live here?”
I thought, Oh shit, this is not the best of neighborhoods. Michael has gone too far this time.
The fellow spun around, took off his sunglasses and sauntered up to my side of the car resting his arm within an inch from my face.
“Na, I don’ live here, why?”
Michael leaned over me, “Well our grandma used to live in this house. We played here over 65 years ago.”
I thought; if we keep this up his story would be 90 years ago by the end of the day.
He moved his face closer to the window and peered in, “Far out man.”
Michael continued chatting as though I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear a word he said, I just wanted to leave before we made any more of a spectacle of ourselves. No one seemed to care that we were totally out of place in this neighborhood. Our Range Rover and white skin didn’t give anyone cause for alarm, except maybe me.
“Hey, want to find our grandparents gravesides?”
“Why not, let’s go!”
We meandered through several cemeteries until we came to one that sounded vaguely familiar. Michael waited in the car with his oxygen tank and I went into the office for directions. In no time I came out waving a map.
“Bingo! It is the right cemetery and we have found two sets of grandparents not one!”
“You’re the greatest sis, jump in!”
We roamed through the streets until we came to the designated section. I found the sites and signaled for Michael to join me. We hadn’t even known that our real grandfather remarried until we read the stone.
We took pictures sitting next to their etched memorial stones. Michael took off his oxygen tank and hid the canister behind one of the headstones. He wore his oxygen contraption for over a decade and never wanted a picture taken wearing it. He was styling with plaid tennis shoes but didn’t care that he had no bottom teeth. He figured that he was dying and didn’t want to waste the money on teeth, as long as he could eat ribs without them.
On occasion he would pick me up at Union Station and we’d head to China Town for Dim Sum and frequent our favorite herb doctor. Michael loved the doctor and his wife Johanna. They concocted herbs, plants and teas to help relieve Michael’s myriad of symptoms. I joined in and bought special teas for whatever was ailing me that day.
“Sis, I want to buy you a tea cup and some tea. Johanna, put that on my bill!”
“Thanks Michael, I love you.”
“I love you too. Now let’s go to the train station and scare the Filipino’s!”
He was referring to the parking guards at Union Station. They took their job very seriously and were protective of the no parking regulations. The possibility that we might park in a no parking zone made them very uneasy. They freaked out each time we drove near their kiosk.
“You cannot come in here!”
Michael, would roll down his window and say politely, “Okay, we’ll just drive in and make a U-turn, okay. I just wanted to show my sister the back of the station.”
“NO, NO you can’t do that.”
Michael rolled up his window and drove in while the guards watched us in fear that we might make an attempt to park. He would laugh as he made the loop and come out of the restricted area. It made him so happy; we did this many times.
On the day Michael died, I took a cab to Chinatown to tell the Doctor and Johanna that Michael had gone. Johanna had tears in her eyes as she touched my hand. I felt her sorrow as she too had lost a friend.
I miss Michael and wish we could scare the Filipinos or I could hear the reasons why I shouldn’t eat Risotto just one more time.
He was my gift from God and I will treasure the stolen moments that we spent together.
“Thanks for the memories Brother. “Hi Ho Silver Away!”
February 23, 1943 – June 12, 2014